My Grandfather-in-law is 104 years of age. Once that would have meant we’d stick him in a circus but nowadays this is not all that unusual. This era of longevity offers us more time to fill ourselves with experiences and adventures, love and lust, more time for vices to develop and lessons to be learnt.
Once upon a time people dreamed of immortality. Now it seems we’re a bunch of ingrates who have been granted a few extra years on Earth, a reward for having been born in this day and age, just to piss them away complaining and reminiscing about the good ole days. Sometimes it looks like the only thing that has been extended is a creaky balcony-extension of complaints and regrets and the propensity to develop more self-inflicted lifestyle diseases so that we’re left hanging on with our wrinkled fingers, fat guts and a pill box as colourful as an acid trip at Woodstock without the thrill of the high.
That’s what I thought until I read about a study of British and US subjects that found most people are generally happier in the second half of their lives than the first. Researchers from the Warwick University described a U-shaped curve of happiness and contentment that hits the rock-bottom of disillusionment at about the age of forty-five at which point there is something of a surrender and then you climb more blissfully, with fewer expectations and demands, toward the grave. I find myself at the nadir of this equation so it’s little wonder life sometimes feels like a bucket of pus.
But what of those who refuse to go gentle into that good night and hold their torchlight high and dig their heels in, screaming, ‘Don’t make me climb up that happy side of the U…I want to go back the other way for a bit longer.’ ?
I don’t want blissful surrender. I’m still enjoying the thrill of the chase even when it feels like I’m being punched in the face. I don’t want to be happy if it means surrendering to the grey decline and flushing my impossible dreams of winning an Oscar and reaching the New York Times Bestseller List into the sewer of regrets. New self-help gurus are advocating that we cut our high expectations loose and aim lower to minimise disappointments. Be happy to be the big fish in the small pond, they say. Not this little guppy.
Young people grow up anxiously, older folk ferment contentedly. But there’s a thin line between fermenting and rotting. I’d rather be anxious, I think.
There is ample evidence that retirement is about as stimulating to the life-force as an intravenous sedative. A couple of years of Grey Nomadic travel and then it’s settle down and get the garden ready for the coffin.
Ageing gracefully is polite but ignoring the process is more entertaining. Only a small fraction find the courage to do that with aplomb. Vivien Westwood. Helen Gurley Brown. Madonna. Iris Apfel (the Dowager Queen of Pizzazz).
Bloom late or sail that second wind, get to the U-Turn and run up backwards like a kid giggling up a descending escalator. Reject the idea that a boat reaching midstream has missed its chance to mend the leaks.
A school teacher once told my class that if you hadn’t found your stride and achieved something of note by the age of thirty-five, you never would. I was homeless at thirty-five. If I’d believed her, I would have rolled over and given up. I had fallen over, stumbled and looked for all the world like a massive failure. Since then I’ve slam-dunked a law degree, published a memoir, fallen in love and had two more children. I’m just finding my feet at forty-five. I sit here in the bottom of the U-slump and look up at my options. I can see the other side but I’ve decided to jog backwards on the treadmill of life. It’s hard though, because I live in a society that glorifies youth and protégée. I’m swimming against the tide like a deranged middle-aged salmon.
There are plenty of examples of renegade geriatrics staying on the playing field and kicking the ball around with the whipper-snappers, beating them at their own game. Dreams don’t have to be abandoned just because you reach a certain age.
Annie Proulx had her first book of fiction published in her 50’s; David Sedaris was still cleaning houses until 37, Jacki Weaver received her first Oscar nomination at 65 while Susan Boyle got pulled out of obscurity at the age of 47.
If twenty is the new thirty then fifty is the new thirty. If crumpled is the new smooth then dentures are the new crowns. If you haven’t decided what you want to be when you grow up at the half-way mark, don’t stress.
Forty-five feels claustrophobic in the bottom of the U but you won’t get me playing lawn bowls or bingo. I’m going back the way I came, thank-you very much. Head first!